I recently checked some of the discussions that took place at the International Conference and Exhibition for Education in Riyadh, which reflected the interest of the key players in the field and their quest to improve it.
I am once again writing about education because it is truly the biggest real challenge facing any attempt of progress in civil and military issues, and the key to unlocking a better future for all nations.
In reality, we are face-to-face with an ancient and deep legacy that has accumulated over the years and has become inadequate for today’s world and counter-productive for a country like Saudi Arabia that has ambitious projects such as Vision 2030. The old education system persists as a major obstacle for all countries in the region, regardless of their level of accumulated sovereign wealth, as they continue to suffer from a significant gap separating them from the industrially developed world.
I have previously written about the necessity of thinking outside the box and the US experience of teaching exact sciences as two crucial topics that deserve more discussions, lectures, and conferences. This calls for a complete change. I think that education planners and officials are fully aware that improving the curriculum, integrating practice in teaching, modernizing buildings, and funding universities and institutes are all partial solutions that are no longer sufficient today. We need fifty years to catch up with the rest of the world and start graduating new generations specialized in advanced science and technology, even at the expense of other fields.
Therefore, we expect these officials to design a revolutionary educational program that spans 20 years and transcends traditional education and its requirements. To achieve that, they need to look at the next twenty years as an “emergency period” to allow deviating from traditions and justify taking risks.
Can science education be intensified early on? Is it possible to qualify high school students for their university majors early to put them on par with their peers in the best universities? In fact, what sets superior universities apart is their recruitment of outstanding students, on top of the quality of their professors and curricula. This means that we should focus on improving public education and guiding students towards specific specializations before they reach high school, where they are rather supposed to start preparing for their specific scientific or medical specializations among others. Students should no longer excel in everything as sciences expand and branch out. In Saudi Arabia, there are more than six million students across various grades in 27,000 schools, and more than 40 public and private universities that can encourage their early specialization.
Is it possible to shorten and throw away other curricula that are less needed? Can university tracks be changed and customized to teach specific subjects? Can university jobs be redesigned and re-allocated to advanced science, technology, and engineering? We need to promote majors like data science; dedicate colleges to artificial intelligence, cyber sciences, and autonomous technology engineering (drones, cars, and robots); and have colleges for medical technology, bioengineering, genomics, industrial engineering, agricultural technology, military technology, space science, and advanced communication engineering, among others. All these disciplines require qualifying students in high school before they reach university.
The transition towards specialization will not be easy, and will rather be difficult and costly, especially with the scarcity of competent educators and administrators. This will be an exceptional educational quarantine period to upgrade society to a higher level.
I am afraid that merely implementing superficial solutions and accepting slow change will no longer suffice for two reasons. First, the outputs of the education sector consistently fail to meet the expectations of the labor market and the national development project. Second, in addition to country-level changes, the world is also advancing at lightning speed which makes it hard to keep up with all the changes, thus widening the gap and costing us more effort and money, not to mention all the lost opportunities. What we suffer from in education is not an emergency problem, but rather a chronic condition resulting from five cumulative decades that requires bringing the entire education sector to the intensive care unit. Many efforts were made to remedy this difficult situation, such as scholarship programs sending hundreds of thousands of students to study abroad. However, such initiatives failed to help us bridge the gap and make the leap because the scholarship recipients, who are the products of local education, were unable to adapt and achieve the desired outcome. Furthermore, most students who were content with local education did not meet the labor market’s expectations.
Today, a more demanding factor comes into play, namely the Vision, with its strategy and programs, which has doubled its expectations and competitive requirements that greatly exceed what is offered by private and public educational institutions. Public secondary and tertiary education will not qualify for the new market, and I am not sure whether there are ways other than early specialization and intensive education that can achieve the required results.
This approach will not undermine our ability to graduate excellent students in other fields, if they are also treated with the same strategy, namely early specialization and intensive education for millions of students, and not just for some of them. This also applies to non-science majors, such as law, political science, economics, languages, literature, psychology, history, media, arts, and others. By reducing their numbers and starting their education early, I firmly believe that our students will be better than previous generations who generally specialized in these fields without focus and early education.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.